When the very first Big Willie tanks clanked and crawled across the killing grounds of the Somme, it quickly became apparent that weight is not helpful for vehicles off the beaten track.
Odd then, that nearly a century later we are still attempting to grind our way across hostile terrain in blasted great things of many tonnes. Handily, we’re not being shot at by Germans this time. If you ask me, when it comes to finding a suitable saddle for a trek, the Panda is just the nag for the job. Since the early ’80s, Fiat has been bolting four-wheel-drive systems on to its favourite magic box, creating a car that has all the tippy-toed dexterity of a mountain goat. If you head into the Alps, you’ll see these untrammelled things bibbling about happily in snow, little wheels cutting a path where lumbering SUVs and their broad tyres bash slippery pistes in a doomed attempt to climb.
Unfortunately, those old Pandas drink fuel like a hoary old cow-herder downs Schnapps and are as comfortable as a woodcutter’s cart. The new Panda 4x4 though, takes all of the great attributes of the original, and adds a spot more comfort and efficiency.
What engines power the Fiat Panda 4x4 model range?
At what first seems counter-intuitive, it comes with the two-cylinder TwinAir engine (a 1.3-litre diesel is also available), which produces as much torque as the wind-up mechanism on a cheap watch with a peak of barely more than 100lb ft. Any hairy-chested off-roader will tell you that torque is a mudplugger’s best friend. Not here though – the Panda doesn’t need it. Because it weighs just over a tonne and wears mud-and-snow 175/65 R15 tyres as standard, it finds easy traction and off it goes. And Fiat has added a sixth gear to the ’box, so that the first cog is ridiculously short, effectively offering a low ratio that can be used to hold the car going downhill.
What other alterations has Fiat made to the Panda to create the Panda 4x4?
Fiat has also upgraded the suspension, with an independent MacPherson strut arrangement at the nosebag end connected at six points to the bodyshell, and there are double shock mounts on each too. Instead of the previous trailing arm set-up, the 4x4 gets a torsion-beam layout at the rear and bigger bushes, all to reduce vibration into the cabin. The Panda is also raised by 47mm, with approach and departure angles as good, if not better, than cars twice its size.
The Panda’s torque-on-demand drive system features two differentials and an electronically controlled coupling, channelling torque front-to-back and side-to-side, helping to quell understeer, pull back oversteer and send drive to whichever tyres have the most traction. Layered on top of this is what Fiat calls an ‘electronic locking differential’, essentially the traction control system intelligently trimming wheelspin from individual wheels – this can be turned off on demand.
Go on then: what's it like off-road?
Now, I’m no great off-roader – I get stuck in muddy puddles Peppa Pig would skip out of – but with that little engine tick-tocking away like a toy helicopter, insistent drive and grippy tyres, the Panda just hops up slopes and putters down steep inclines. However, because you rely on that first gear when going downhill rather than some fancy electronic hill-descent control, it does take some skill to master. And obviously, while it competes in many fields with cars twice its size, sometimes its lack of ground clearance relative to bigger beasts will hinder it.
And back on the road?
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Panda’s on-road manners. Thanks to the uprated suspension and lashings of rubbery buffering, the Panda rides beautifully, absorbing all sorts of large or small irritations in the road. It leans a bit through corners and you really only find out if your steering input was correct after the event, but it’s not a car you expect to challenge too many fast apexes with only 83bhp.
The Panda 4x4 will come fairly stacked, in top-spec Lounge version only, and that means the £14,000 tag might seem expensive for a city car. But it’s not bad for a perfectly fit-for-purpose, superbly engineered off-roader, with a clever little engine and excellent driving characteristics that will embarrass those behemoths in the field and hold its own on the road.